Climate Change & Temple Destruction

Think of this as theological pondering in the shadow of a behemoth.

The behemoth is often veiled behind social media rants over purported high crimes and misdemeanors, but it sometimes peaks into view and waves hello. Witness two recent news items: First, President Donald Trump served notice of America’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris climate accord, which means the second-largest CO2 emitter will distinguish itself as the world’s lone hold-out in the global warming fight. Second, new research suggests 150 million people live on land below the predicted 2050 high-tide line. Imagine gondolas floating past Miami’s skyscrapers.

Such tidings should spur thoughtful action, with moderators peppering presidential candidates at debates and politicians kissing a million babies while promoting civilization-saving programs. Manufacturers would flood the shelves with environmentally-friendly widgets and preachers would wield phrases like “creation stewardship” and “the sanctity of life” and “moral imperative.” We’d chase solutions with the same never-say-no attitude that defeated Axis tyrants, landed men on the moon, and won us the Cold War.

But few see climate change as paramount. Rescuing civilization is just one important issue among many. The candidates mention it, but their proposed initiatives remain tucked away on their web sites; voters rarely reward political leaders; and pastors often wilt before high-powered deniers on their church boards or fall prey to conspiracy theories. It seems we’ve forgotten humanity’s very reason for being: Fact is, God bequeathed us a prime directive at our advent, issued long before Abraham emigrated to the Promised Land and Moses climbed Mount Sinai. We exist to bring God’s shalom, or well-being, into creation – which ties care for the Earth to our designated role and identity. We gradually lose our humanity as we kill off species and choke-out the atmosphere and acidify the oceans.

It’s all there in Genesis 1-3. Those chapters – whether we take them literally or not – force the question: “What are we becoming?” Are we lumbering toward our own spiritual extinction as we snuff out others?

An exalted place housing exalted beings with an exalted task

Genesis 1 exalts the Earth in its very structure. It’s soaked with sevens, which invokes the Middle East’s sacred number of perfection. As Jeff Morrow notices, the first verse holds seven Hebrew words while the second holds fourteen (a multiple of seven). “God” occurs 35 times (7X5); both “earth” and “the heavens” occur 21 times (7X3); the phrase “it was so” occurs seven times; so does “God saw that it was good.” Genesis 2:1-3 refers to the seventh day three times in three separate sentences composed of seven words each. Morrow writes: “The careful attention to a sevenfold structure indicates that Genesis in its final form is a liturgical text. We may go further and state that, in fact, Genesis 1 reads as a sort of liturgical hymn.”

The climactic seventh day caps everything. It invokes the language of temple construction when it says God “rested.”  Compare and contrast with other Near Eastern literature: A deity breathed life into its representative, or idol, upon a temple’s completion and then rested. That didn’t mean the god took a siesta. Rather, it settled in the temple and inaugurated the structure’s ordained activity. Apply that here: The Earth is God’s resting place. It’s a temple, which means we live in an exalted place. And God breathed life into humanity, which means we are God’s representative, or idol (the Hebrew word for “image” is the same as idol). We’re exalted beings, God’s appointed rulers over his sacred space – which, incidentally, reveals one reason God forbade the ancient Israelites from forging graven images. The image already walks and talks. We’re it.

Suddenly, we see the Earth through a new set of lenses. We live in a sacred space, a temple. We don’t worship the temple itself, of course (we worship its God), but we view it with esteem, even  awe – especially since God sealed it with a sacred number and deemed it good seven times. We rule this creation as loving and nurturing kings and queens.

Anti-human Humans

Alas, the evidence mounts like a NASCAR pile up: Humanity is now in active rebellion against God’s prime directive. We’re maiming what we were meant to nurture. Global carbon dioxide emissions likely rose by about 2.7 percent in 2018 and 1.6 percent in 2017, dashing hopes of flattened emissions (they were level the previous thee years). That glum news comes in a doomsday package: 2015-2019 ranks as the warmest five-year period since global temperatures began to be monitored; climate shocks are striking harder and sooner than predicted ten years ago; the rise in sea level is accelerating while the ocean acidifies.

Most Americans believe the science, yet policymakers yield power to conspiracy enthusiasts. One global-warming denier said frigid polar vortexes prove that the theory of human-induced climate change is “socialism in drag.” Another said scientists concocted climate change so they could fund their vacations to Greenland (forgetting that the scientists are like everyone else: they’d swindle us for Bahama holidays if they were dishonest). The late Jerry Falwell said this: “I am today raising a flag of opposition to this alarmism about global warming and urging all believers to refuse to be be duped by these ‘earthism’ worshipers.”

True, some environmental enthusiasts are pantheists (they’re convinced that creation itself is God) and some align with Native American spiritualities. But that’s far from universal. Awe of nature and love for the environment does not necessarily mean we venerate grass, tulips, and trees – otherwise, religious authorities would file heresy charges against the authors of Psalms 8, 19, and 104. And my wife would live in doctrinal peril. She relishes gardening and loves flowers, but (thankfully) she saves worship for our Triune God. She’s like an Old Testament priest, who performed acts of worship in the temple. She does not worship the temple itself.

Inveighing against “earthism worship” cloaks humanity’s rebellion in seemingly holy language and portrays solid Christians as heretics. It stokes unnecessary fear and amounts to a false charge.

Made from dirt

The themes of image-bearing temple rulers echo and magnify in the next two chapters, the story of Adam and Eve. Old Testament scholars generally refer to this as a second creation narrative and say it once floated independently from Genesis 1. They’re probably right, but the Bible’s editors saw enough harmony between the stories to knit them together. As it stands within the cannon, the Eden narrative is the up-close-and-personal version of creation’s sixth day and illuminates our link with the Earth itself: God formed the man from the ground and breathed life into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7), the language of idol creation. The “ground” is pronounced “Adamah” in Hebrew; “man” is “Adam,” which is also Hebrew for “humanity.” The Earth is embedded in our name.

Interpreters have teased out insights. Greg Beale of Westminster Theological Seminary, for example, sees how God walked back and forth in Eden (see Genesis 3:8), which is the same language describing God’s presence in nomadic Israel (see Leviticus 26:12 and Deuteronomy 23:14),* a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). Voila: Eden served as a holy of holies, the temple’s inner sanctum. Others point to Genesis 2:19, where God brings the various creatures before Adam and has him name them. Naming a given creature completed its creation. A beast with no name was void of identity. God involved us in his creative act.

Sandy Richter of Westmont College sheds more insight when discussing the research of Michael Dick and Catherine McDowell. It seems that Mesopotamian worshipers made their idols and placed them in a sacred garden overnight, then returned to the garden and, after elaborate washing ceremonies, installed them in their temples. Read the familiar story of The Fall with that backdrop: Adam and Eve were in the sacred garden when the serpent tempted them to overthrow God. The idol tried to usurp the deity; the image vied with the substance and fouled its own sanctification. CS Lewis was right: We are a “spoiled species,” a perverse and tainted shadow of what we were meant to be. A key consequence: We violate our prime directive and vandalize the Earth.

Hope sings 

Tragedy would reign if the story ended there. The idol was deprived of its temple and a temple would stand hollow. But redemption comes in a sheer act of grace. God created a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:5-6), a mantle now shared with Gentile believers (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus came as a harbinger of things to come and all creation awaits its full restoration. Romans 8:19 says precisely that: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” So does verses 22-23: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Creation’s redemption is embedded in the oft-cited John 3:16: “For God so loved the world [the cosmos] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” And there’s Colossians 1:19-20: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [i.e., Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Christ’s blood not only re-establishes humanity’s relationship with God – which we appropriate through faith – it restores creation to its original purpose. The temple gets its idol back and the idol finds its home. Christ’s followers are active agents in this restoration (Romans 8:23; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21); we’re God’s privileged co-creators again.

It’s obvious: believers should be environmental champions, protesting the temple’s current perversion into a torture chamber for many species. We teeter on a massive die-off, with one third of all amphibians endangered.**

Getting practical 

So what to do? Of course we can recycle our tin foil and buy less plastic and, if we can afford it, purchase hybrid and electric cars. And I’d be the last to dismiss prayer – if we understand prayer’s nature (it’s the act of reaching into heaven and bringing its ways onto the Earth: see Matthew 6:10 and Luke 11:2) and if we don’t hide behind spirituality’s lingo to evade action and throttle initiative. It’s past time we embrace our responsibility.

It seems we must act in two dovetailing realms: Internal and external, with our internal exercises devoted to erecting three character fortifications. The first involves our motivations: Are we joining this fight to make a name for ourselves and “succeed” as American society defines that term? If so, good luck. This battle can be bleak and lonely – and, in the end, the seas may come, island nations may vanish, and our children and grandchildren may face a tumultuous future. We must face a sobering question: “Am I willing to be a Jeremiah?,” whom God called about 600 years before Christ. The Lord’s promise to him: “When you tell them all these things, they will not listen to you. When you call them, they will not answer” (Jeremiah 7:27). Jeremiah proclaimed the truth because it was true, with no promise of success. Such is our task.

The second fortification involves resilience. Prepare for ridicule and heresy accusations. Prepare to lose friends and alienate cousins and aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. Many supposedly evangelical Christians erect a false orthodoxy around climate change and swallow conspiracy theories whole. Fact is, no Bible verse or creed is in jeopardy. Yet the invective flows: We’re “earthism worshipers,” nefarious political liberals (dread the day) and socialists (“in drag” no less). I’ve been publicly accused of succumbing to the “far left” and joining hands with George Soros.

The third fortification: Strengthen our discernment while muddling through logical fallacies, passive resistance, and foot-dragging inertia. Prepare for badgering whatabouts: “What about evangelism? Shouldn’t we devote more time to getting people saved?” We feel paralyzed: Do we save temporal nature or the eternal soul? I’ve got two ready replies: First, we can walk and chew gum at the same time, with Christian environmentalism mingling with the Gospel’s advocacy. Indeed, our presence in the movement quashes the myth that all Bible-believers gurgle oil and hate the atmosphere. Second, I hereby ask: Are we doing evangelism now? The answer is usually no and the what-about stalls us on both fronts: We mute both our environmental and evangelistic voices. Yet another muddle is the God-would-never fallacy: God would never permit world-wide calamity. Read up on the fourteenth century. Flea-bearing rats stowed away on caravans and ships and spread the plague. Roughly a third of all Europe died. I have no idea why God permitted that, but he did. Then recall Genesis 1-3 and our prime directive: God delegated the Earth to our care. It’s ours to nurture or destroy.

Don’t wait for perfection. Our internal fortifications will strengthen as we avail ourselves of the external opportunities. Perhaps we can begin by challenging Joe-the-denier when he spills his conspiracy theories at gatherings. Instead of remaining mum as usual, this time we’ll clog up his arguments with facts, logic, and a smile. He’ll yell louder, of course – often wielding innuendo and character assassination – but others may take the cue and join our side. Joe may learn that the past’s silent replies did not convey agreement. Then we can write letters to the editor – especially after Josephine-the-denier embarrassed all when she blasted environmentalists in the name of Jesus. We’ll begin: “Not all followers of Christ …”

We can then go public and volunteer for town Green committees, or local watershed councils, or even run for relevant commissions, such as Planning and Zoning. Towns cry for candidates and we’ll often find ourselves unopposed.  Personally, I began by volunteering for my town’s Green Energy Committee and took off from there. I joined the directors of Connecticut’s Interreligious Eco-Justice Network and the steering committee for the Connecticut Round Table on Climate and Jobs. I’ve written articles. I’ve even sat on panels from Hartford to Rhode Island to Washington DC.

The sky’s the limit. The key is to follow our God-given bliss: Organizers can organize; advocates can advocate; networkers can network; fixers can fix and builders can build and growers can grow.

And through it all, we’ll see through the tweet storms and rants and raves and even the array of vital issues clamoring for attention – which we must not trivialize. Just remember: The dangers of climate change dwarf all others, partly because they’re entwined with God’s first commandment, our prime directive.  Their challenge reminds us of who were are meant to be.

 

* G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), pp. 75-75; cited in Morrow.

**AmphibiaWeb. 2019. <https://amphibiaweb.org> University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA. Accessed 22 Nov 2019.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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